Progressive pastor flips Dauphin County board blue for first time in 100 years after running against prison deaths

A banner by Justin Douglas' campaign highlighting the deaths in Dauphin County prison hanging on the front porch of a Harrisburg row home. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

November 14, 2023

Justin Douglas, a progressive pastor, helped flip Dauphin County blue on Election Day after running a longshot, under the radar campaign. Douglas’ campaign highlighted 18 deaths at Dauphin County prison and wants to reform it as a county commissioner.  

With gauged ears and a sleeve of tattoos running down his left arm, Justin Douglas looks like he belongs in the middle of the crowd at a punk show rather than serving as a pastor at a local congregation or an incoming county commissioner. 

Douglas, a progressive pastor, upended politics as usual on Election Day in Dauphin County by flipping the county blue for the first time since World War I and took an usual journey in securing a seat on Dauphin County Board of Commissioners. 

Douglas arrived in Dauphin County in 2015 and served as a pastor for a church under The Brethren in Christ Church, which is similar to other Anabaptist denominations such as the Amish or Mennonites, but eventually found himself at odds with the church over his inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  

“I deeply believe that LGBT individuals should be involved in the life of the church without limitation, including marriage,” Douglas said in an interview with The Keystone. “That became a point of difference with the denomination and ultimately I lost my license over that.”

Following the loss of his license in 2019, Douglas took his congregation with him and started the Belong Collective, a non-denominational church in Harrisburg. 

Earlier this year, he launched his commissioner campaign and centered it around one issue that many people told him would be a losing one—the deaths of 18 prisoners who had died in custody at Dauphin County prison since 2019.

“I was told when I started running that if I elevated the issue of the prison as my number one issue, there’d be no way I would get elected,” Douglas said.

“We proved that wrong.”

To drive the message home to voters about what’s been occurring inside Dauphin County prison, Douglas and his campaign bought a billboard to do so. 

“On that billboard, my name was much smaller than the fact that 18 people had died, and that was intentional,” said Douglas. “We wanted to make sure that that was the emphasizing point that voters would be ultimately understanding and aware of what was happening in the prison.”

In a four-way race that generated over 117,000 votes, Douglas eked out a 42 vote advantage on the night of the election, placing him in third place for the final spot on the commission. 

Douglas was recruited to run for the office by Run for Something, a progressive organization that recruits candidates to run for local offices and provide them the support they need throughout their campaigns.  

“Justin defied the image of a typical candidate, using unconventional ways to speak to voters and reach the community, like a robust social media presence on TikTok, and refusal to cede Republican voters to his opponent,” said Juan Ramiro Sarmiento, the National Press Secretary for Run for Something.

In the broader picture, Douglas’ victory will be a boon for Democrats in a county that often votes blue in presidential and statewide elections, but has had trouble making inroads in offices further down the ballot.

This victory will allow Democrats to oversee how elections are conducted in Dauphin County for next year’s presidential election.

Douglas told Bolts Magazine that he wants to expand ballot access ahead of the 2024 election. This would include installing more drop boxes in Dauphin County and allowing ballot curing, which gives voters the opportunity to fix simple mistakes on their mail-in ballots before they get tossed by the county. Dauphin County did not allow ballot curing in the 2020 or 2022 elections. 

“This has been a shocking experience,” Douglas said. “Not that shocking because we didn’t think we could win. We thought we could win. We thought that, but shocking because we knew what we were up against and we knew establishment politics are really hard to change and challenge.”

“I’m just so grateful for my team, for everyone who put a sign in their yard for everyone who shared a social media post, for everyone who gave a dollar to this campaign, because every dollar mattered. Everyone who knocked a door, everyone who texted their friends about me, that could go on and on.”

 

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